The 54-piece set which exists now was completed in 1975. But as early as December 1965, the “Monumental Nativity Scene of Castelli” was exhibited in the town square of Castelli. Five years after that, it was shown at Trajan’s Market in Rome. Later it also made its way to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv for exhibitions.
Mancini recalled that the work had also received mixed reviews in Castelli, with people saying “it’s ugly, it’s beautiful, it seems to me… it doesn’t seem to me...” He commented: “It doesn’t embarrass us.”
About the reactions to the scene being at the Vatican, he said, “I do not know which criticism to answer, the school has allowed the exhibition of one of its historical artifacts.” He also pointed out that it was not made by artisans but by a school.
“It is rich in symbols and signifiers that offer a non-traditional reading of the nativity scene,” he explained.
But people look to the Vatican “for the tradition of beauty,” said Lev, who lives in Rome and teaches at Duquesne University. “We keep beautiful things in there so that no matter how awful your life is, you can walk into St. Peter’s and that’s yours, that’s part of who you are, and it reflects who you are and the glory of who you are,” she told the National Catholic Register.
“I don’t understand why we’d turn our back on that,” she added. “It seems to be part of this strange, modern loathing and rejection of our traditions.”
The Vatican department responsible for organizing the nativity each year is the Governorate of Vatican City State. It said in a press release that the artwork was influenced by ancient Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian sculpture.
The Governorate of the Vatican City State did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
In his speech at Friday’s unveiling, the president of the department, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, said that the scene helps us “understand that the Gospel can animate all cultures and all trades.”
(Story continues below)
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A Vatican News article Dec. 14 called the scene “slightly different,” and said that those with negative reactions to the “contemporary nativity scene” may not have understood its “hidden story.”
The article quoted Pope Francis’ 2019 letter “Admirabile signum,” in which he said it is customary “to add many symbolic figures to our nativity scenes,” even figures “that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts.”
In the letter, which means “Remarkable sign,” Francis goes on to mention figures such as a beggar, blacksmith, musicians, women carrying jugs of water, and children at play. These speak “of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us,” he said.
“Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” the pope wrote. “It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged: it can always be the same or it can change from year to year. What matters is that it speaks to our lives.”
“Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition,” he said.